“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
With the country in quarantine and the world in a state of viral panic I’ve decided to spend nights with my wife enjoying movies, the traditional American form of escapism. Our current era of digital streaming is wonderful for the film lover, parents, and the disease weary shut-in. While unlike my wife, I often miss the magic of the movie theater, I have to say that being able to enjoy the latest movies on my couch, glass of wine in hand, and the ability to hit the bathroom without missing anything is fantastic.
First, the 2019 film season has been the best in over a decade. Outstanding movies like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ford vs Ferrari, and Parasite being my favorite, with runner-ups like Uncut Gems, The Lighthouse, and Joker. I can’t remember a year where I liked so many big movies.
But with all the recent movies exhausted and the increasing fear and depression in the world due to the virus, I’ve gravitated to watching classic Westerns on Amazon Prime, and nobody made classic westerns like John Ford with John Wayne.
The Western is the quintessential American genre. The Western is the chivalric romance updated to the 20th century. It’s the spiritual mythology of a country on the brink of cultural domination of the world. In the 19th century Americans conquered the Frontier with bullets and railroads and in the 20th century Americans culturally conquered the world with movies, blue jeans, and capitalistic dominance.
I find the Western attractive for the same reason I find pulp fiction and medieval fantasy attractive. Strong men, strict codes of honor, beautiful but deadly environments, individualism, and an overall aesthetic that matches my romantic conservatism. So these past few days I’ve gone through some of John Fords Western Masterpieces.
John Ford with Stagecoach, is credited with making what is the first Western considered to transcend the genre and also the movie that skyrocketed John Wayne’s career. 1939’s Stagecoach was a pleasure to watch. Based on one of my favorite short stories, Ernest Haycox’s The Stage to Lordsbourg, the movie follows a group of stagecoach travelers crossing dangerous Apache territory. You have a prostitute ran out of town, a banker carrying stolen money, a whiskey peddler, a suave gambler, a classy wife of an officer, the local sheriff, foolish driver, and John Wayne’s Ringo Kidd who is an escaped convict looking to settle scores. All of these characters are thrown together on a perilous journey.
Stagecoach is storytelling perfection. The movie is filled with tension. Class tension between the passengers, the constant danger of unseen Apaches, and finally the knowledge that Ringo, if he makes it to his destination faces death at the hands of his enemies. Excellent movie.
Next up was 1950’s Wagon Master starring Ben Johnson, Harry Cary, Ward Bond, and Joanne Dru. It’s the odd movie out because it doesn’t have John Wayne and because it is fundamentally a romantic comedy with a slightly pacifist theme focused on community.
Wagon Master is the story of a group of Mormon settlers expelled out of town heading west towards the San Juan River country in Utah. They hire the two main characters, horse traders, as wagon masters to take them to their destination safely. On the difficult journey they encounter a medicine show troupe of drunken degenerates, Indians, and finally a band of murderous outlaws.
Wagon Master is a great movie, a western where the focus is on finding community, the desire to go west for a better life, and the contrast between the outlaws and the Mormons. Ward Bond plays a hard scrapping, cussing, Mormon Elder, my favorite character in the movie.
Excellent movie worth watching for its rather unique plot format, more of a series of montages instead of a linear structure, and for the positive portrayal of religious people, something rare in today’s entertainment.
1956’s The Searchers starring John Wayne is considered a masterpiece and one of the most influential films ever made. John Wayne returns to his brothers Texas homestead after fighting in the Civil War. Shortly after Comanches raid killing the family and kidnapping the two daughters. John Wayne and his adopted nephew spend the next few years tracking the Indian band across Texas and the territories.
The Searchers is a surprisingly dark movie and Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards is compelling and highly nuanced, almost to the point of being unlikable to my 21st century sensibilities. Ethan is an Ahab character, obsessed with hurting the Comanche almost more than he is obsessed with finding his niece, who might actually be his daughter.
Racism and the disgust towards miscegenation, specifically the rape of white women by the Indians, but also in the disgust one of the characters shows towards a Indian female, is one of the central themes. The rape of captives is directly implied, and even the gentle female characters show disgust at the idea of a white woman returning or wanting to live after being taken captive.
Excellent movie filmed beautifully in Utah’s Monument Valley, but somewhat darker than the others. I think this one requires another viewing in order to catch the subtler themes.
Finally 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance starring James Stewart and John Wayne, my wife’s favorite movie out of the four.
Liberty Valance starts with a frame narrative, James Steward as Senator Ransom Stoddard and his wife return to the small frontier town of Shinbone for the funeral of an unknown man. After the local newspaper presses him about the story, Senator Ransom tells the tale of his coming to Shinbone thirty years prior and is dealings with the dead man, Tom Doniphan played by John Wayne.
The young Ransom, a freshly minted lawyer, arrives in the western territories, head filled with ideas of justice and fairness, only to find Shinbone a cesspit of crime where the citizens are at the mercy of thugs like Liberty Valance and their rich rancher bosses. John Wayne, plays Doniphan, a tough alpha rancher in love with the local waitress and critical of Ransoms idealism.
Liberty Vance is a movie that wonderfully illustrates the concept of Law vs Chaos, wild vs civilization, and the power of law and justice vs rule by might and violence. It’s a idealistic movie, one that has faith in American government and law making it somewhat tough to swallow in our cynical 21st century, but the story and acting is overall excellent. Its one fault is that it continues past what I thought should have been its logical endpoint, dragging out the ending into an unnecessary diversion.
I’m going to continue watching older movies, I’m finding the writing, pacing, and feel of classics refreshing. Most of all I enjoy the lack of cynicism and snark found in modern movies.
I think I’m going to continue Westerns into the Eastwood Era or maybe some Bogart movies. Maybe I’ll do a round of Akira Kurosawa samurai flicks.